Turkey’s threat of a refugee exodus

Stuck in a standoff with Russia, Turkey tried to manipulate help from Europe with a flow of migrants. This exploitation of innocent people ran into a global norm.

Migrants wait in line for food and water on the Greek island of Lesbos March 3.

Since last Friday, journalists have camped out on the border between Turkey and Greece watching for fresh flows of migrants. They anticipated something rarely seen in history: one nation exploiting refugees as pawns in a geopolitical struggle.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to allow up to 1 million refugees now in his country to cross into Europe. To the credit of global norms against the use of innocent migrants as weapons, the flow has been much slower than expected.

Instead of a million Syrians and others crossing into Greece, only about 24,000 made the attempt by Monday, according to Greek officials. Mr. Erdoğan may have decided that generating a migration crisis in Europe was not worth the reputational cost. The world’s moral standards against exploiting vulnerable refugees appear to be holding.

Mr. Erdoğan’s motives for the threat were not entirely clear, but his current circumstances are. He is in a dangerous standoff with Russia over military influence in Syria and wants Western powers to back him up. To get that help, he may have decided to use what is known as “coercive engineered migration,” or driving people toward countries that want regulated flows of migration. This nonmilitary tool is sometimes used by weak countries against stronger ones. Libya under Muammar Qaddafi tried it with Europe while Cuba under Fidel Castro employed it several times against the United States. Recall the Mariel boatlift of 1980 off Florida.

Mr. Erdoğan’s threat was short-lived in part because of a tongue-lashing from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who often acts as the world’s conscience. She said Turkey was putting the lives of civilians at risk. In his policy dispute with the European Union, Mr. Erdoğan was “taking it out on the backs of refugees,” she said. “That’s the wrong way.”

To its credit, Turkey has hosted 3.7 million refugees from Syria’s civil war since 2011. It deserves Western aid for this generous hospitality. And the EU as well as the U.S. needs to absorb more of the refugees. But Mr. Erdoğan cannot expect the West to let him exploit refugees for his national goals in Syria. Even in war, the combatants must make peace with the norms of protecting innocent people.

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